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Washington state governor intervenes in teachers strike

By Laura L. Myers

SEATTLE (Reuters) - The governor of Washington state ordered Tacoma school district officials and union leaders for 1,900 striking teachers to report to her office on Wednesday afternoon unless they settle their differences by then.

Classes have remained closed to the 28,700 students enrolled in the state's third-largest school district since Tacoma teachers launched their strike on September 13 in a labor dispute over staffing policies, class size and salaries.

A state judge ordered the teachers back to work last week, but union members have remained on strike in defiance of his injunction.

School officials presented the union with a new contract offer shortly before a marathon 14-hour bargaining session ended early Tuesday morning. The two sides resumed talks later that day with the union making counter-proposals, but negotiations broke off again at about 11 p.m.

As striking teachers returned to picket lines on Wednesday morning for a seventh day, Governor Christine Gregoire weighed in to demand the parties come to the state capital, Olympia, about 30 miles from Tacoma, if they remained unable to settle their dispute.

"If no deal is reached by 3 p.m. this afternoon, both the district and the union will report to my office and stay until their differences are reconciled and the school doors reopen," Gregoire said in a statement.

"There is no question that the Tacoma teacher strike has continued for far too long -- disrupting the lives of families and the 28,000 students who need to be in school," she said.

Union spokesman Rich Wood said district officials had walked out of the latest round of talks.

School officials "had great optimism" about the latest negotiations, but union leaders "came back with a new proposal, caveats and conditions" that halted talks, district spokesman Dan Voelpel said.

Contempt-of-court notices were mailed out to teachers found by Pierce County Superior Court Judge Bryan Chushcoff on Friday to be in violation of his no-strike order. Those letters direct the teachers to prepare for further court appearances that would begin next Tuesday if the walkout continues.

Labor negotiations in Tacoma began on May 31, and the teachers have been without a contract since September 1.

The main obstacle to a settlement, the union says, has been district demands to alter staffing policies so that decisions on teacher reassignments between schools are based on criteria other than seniority, such as performance evaluations.

The union also objected to pay cuts sought by the district and is at odds with the district over class size, which the teachers want to reduce. The district said it cannot afford to do so.

The union said the district has amassed a surplus of $40 million, while the district said it will have to spend down its reserve funds by $15.4 million this year to avoid deeper cuts in teaching positions and student programs after being forced to eliminate about 100 jobs and close two elementary schools.

(Editing by Steve Gorman and Cynthia Johnston)

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